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Public Design Commission Approves Controverisal UWS Playground Redesign

By Emily Frost | September 15, 2014 6:11pm
 The commission approved the design unanimously on Monday. 
PDC Approves Playground 89 Redesign
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CITY HALL — The Public Design Commission gave its unanimous approval Monday to a Parks Department redesign of a controversial local playground, pending an aesthetic tweak to a set of benches.

The decision represents the end of a years-long battle over the future of Playground 89 on West 89th Street that pitted fellow parents and residents against each other over the renovation, which many argued was needed to prevent injuries to kids.

At the public hearing the commission hosted Monday, both sides gave testimony, including Friends of Playground 89, a group that has vehemently opposed any redesign of the longtime play space.

Those in support of the plan — including the current principal and PTA from the playground's adjoining school P.S. 166, elected officials, Community Board 7, parents and nearby residents — shared perspectives, bringing the commission up to speed on past debates and public meetings.

The commissioners kept their ensuing discussion brief, agreeing to approve the Parks Department's work, but only on the condition the agency modify the design of a trio of benches that were added in the third, most recent version of the design. 

The three curved benches were added in the latest redesign to create additional small play areas for children and to create a boundary between play equipment and open space at the middle of the playground, explained Nancy Prince, deputy chief of design for the Parks Department.

"I just find them aesthetically jarring," noted PDC Commissioner Byron Kim, who added that the benches were only part of the design he found "problematic."

Kim asked the designers to redo the benches, thinking about them as seating first and a "barrier" second.

During her presentation, Prince emphasized that the design maintains the amphitheater and represents a "compromise" between all the conflicting viewpoints. It also preserves as much of the historic design as possible and incorporates the input of the original designer, M. Paul Friedberg, she said.

"We really think the design responds to the goals of maintaining the uniqueness of this playground and making it truly ADA accessible," she said.

Several commissioners applauded the ADA accessibility achieved through decreasing the incline of sloped areas and removing a set of steps blocking access to a part of the playground.

"We certainly would not challenge a modification for regulatory reasons," said PDC President Signe Nielsen of updates to the design made for ADA compliance. "That is not debatable."

Public spaces like playgrounds need to be updated to match the pace of social change, in this case making them accessible to more people, several public speakers testified in support of the new plan.

"You have preserved some significant elements …I think it really helps make the playground accessible and usable to people today," said Commissioner Philip Aarons.

Nielsen reminded those assembled that her colleagues' only purview was the design, and not to debate claims about its safety.

Friends of Playground 89 argued that the current configuration is safe because it limits ball play to one small area. The opposing side has said the sloped bowl shape of the playground is responsible for multiple injuries, including concussions, chipped teeth and broken bones. 

In the latest redesign, the amount of flat space for ball games was increased, Prince said. 

The PDC marks the last stop in the approval process for the Parks Department before it can begin construction. There will not be any more public hearings on the redesign, according to the PDC.

Parks Department landscape architects will present new versions of the benches to the PDC "very soon," said Parks spokesman Philip Abramson.

Once the commission approves that change, it will then give its final approval of the project and work can begin, he added. 

The playground, which is used jointly by the public and the neighboring elementary school, has $950,000 in funding set aside for the redesign from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal.